Black graduate wins £20,000 payout after manager joked she could be 'deported'

Fignola Alexandre, was left 'deeply distressed' and 'humiliated' by a joke boss Craig Warner made about her visa extension application.

A branded sign is displayed outside of a BT building in London, Britain January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall
Fignola Alexandre was awarded a payout after taking BT to a tribunal. (Stock image: Reuters) (Neil Hall / reuters)

A black graduate at BT whose manager joked she could be 'deported' has won more than £20,000 after suing the company for racial harassment.

Fignola Alexandre, was left 'deeply distressed' and 'humiliated' by a joke boss Craig Warner made about her visa extension application.

The tribunal heard that Warner also 'shocked' Alexandre and another black employee by suggesting the fact there weren't many black swimmers was "because of class", a tribunal heard.

Warner denied making the comment and insisted he was quoting a Tweet referring to 'elite black NFL players' not being able to swim because they were from 'underprivileged backgrounds'.

However, an employment tribunal ruled that Alexandre, who is from the USA, was racially harassed and she has now won £20,964 from Openreach Ltd.

Employment tribunal documents with pen on table.
An employment tribunal awarded Alexandre £20,964. (Stock image: Getty) (designer491 via Getty Images)

The tribunal heard that Alexandre - who identifies as Afro-Caribbean and moved to America from Haiti as a child - began working for BT in a graduate role in September 2016.

She was described as being highly educated, with two degrees - one from Columbia University in New York and a Masters from Manchester University.

In August 2019 she began a new role as an industry engagement specialist, with a salary of £38,000 per year, reporting directly to Warner and was recruited at the same time as two other women - one of whom, Bernice Iyanda, is also black.

After settling into her new job, the tribunal heard Alexandre became 'anxious' due to the upcoming expiration of her working visa and was worried the relevant people dealing with the extension could be preoccupied with other matters, meaning the application wouldn't be submitted on time.

In early December, on Alexandre's request, Warner raised her concerns about her visa to more senior managers.

However, during a call at around the same time he also made a joke about Ms Alexandre being 'deported'.

Although at the time she nor Iyanda didn't react to the comment, Alexandre told the tribunal she felt "shocked and humiliated".

Her visa extension was later granted on time.

The comment about swimmers came in late January 2020 when Alexandra, Warner, Iyanda and another white male colleague travelled to Belfast in Northern Ireland on a work visit.

At dinner one evening Warner was said to have suggested the absence of top-level black swimmers was due to 'class', offending both Alexandre and Iyanda.

Alexandre told the tribunal the conversation arose after she explained she "could not swim" and did not like swimming "because of her hair", which she said was a common reason in the black community.

Warner then said: "I thought it was because of class", she said.

Warner denied saying the lack of professional black swimmers was due to "class" - but told the tribunal he had referred to a Tweet about black American Football players being unable to swim, suggested that one reason was that some players had progressed in the sport from "underprivileged backgrounds".

At the end of January Alexandre wrote to Warner saying she felt she was not performing well in her role and felt 'judged'. After consulting senior managers he told her he may need to put her on a coaching plan which, if it didn't lead to a performance improvement, could result in her dismissal.

She declined an invitation to a meeting to discuss the plan in mid-February, and presented a formal grievance about Warner's comments on her potential deportation and black swimmers.

Three days later she went on sick leave due to anxiety and stress.

The tribunal heard the grievance investigation later 'excused' Warner's comments and an appeal by Alexandre was also dismissed.

However, Employment Judge Hilary Slater ruled both the deportation and the swimming comments amounted to harassment.

At a hearing to determine Alexandre's compensation, Judge Slater said: "We accept the evidence given by Ms Alexandre that she found this 'joke' [about deportation] utterly humiliating and it made her feel deeply distressed.

"The visa process had already caused her a great deal of stress and anxiety as everything she had built in the UK hung in the balance.

"She found it profoundly hurtful, humiliating and damaging to have this minimised and joked about by Craig Warner."

The judge added that the swimming comment was "particularly hurtful" because "the topic of swimming in the black community, specifically in the US, is linked with a painful history of racism".

"This was the first time in her career that she became aware that her skin tone could impact on how she was perceived in the workplace.

"The acts of harassment contributed to her poor mental health, such that she went on sick leave for approximately six months, and had suicidal thoughts."

Other claims of racial discrimination and victimisation by Alexandre failed.